Gears 5 Review — The War Machine Keeps Turning
Gears 5 is perhaps the best entry in the long-running shooter series and stands as one of the best games in the Xbox One era.
Xbox Game Studios
Xbox One X
Review copy provided by the publisher
There has been a lot said about Microsoft’s first-party lineup in this Xbox One era. Even though many first-party offerings in recent years have often left something to be desired, Microsoft has over the past year or so doubled down on the future by acquiring a handful of new developers to make games exclusively for Xbox and PC platforms. While we haven’t seen much of what the future will hold for many of these upcoming games, the coming years should be fantastic if Gears 5 is an indication of what to expect in the first-party realm.
Gears 5 isn’t just a return to form for one of Xbox’s longest-running franchises, it stands as one of the best games that Microsoft has published since launching the Xbox One. Across the board, Gears 5 is filled to the brim with content that isn’t just enjoyable, but provides an immense level of replayability that you’ll keep coming back to time and time again. From the Campaign and Versus to Horde and the new Escape mode, Gears 5 iterates and refines the franchise for the better, making it perhaps the best entry in the entire series.
“Gears 5 iterates and refines the franchise for the better.”
The narrative of Gears 5 picks up relatively soon after the cliffhanger that Gears of War 4 ended upon. Kait Diaz, one of the main characters of the previous entry, takes center stage this time around as she is dealing with the discovery that her family tree might be much darker than previously thought. Kait, alongside returning Gears of War 4 characters like Del and JD and other longstanding fixtures like Baird, Cole, and Marcus, must continue combating the Swarm, the latest evolution of the Locust, while discovering secrets about the roots of the COG.
In a lot of ways, Gears of War 4 felt like all set up with very little pay off come the end of the campaign. As such, it stood to reason that Gears 5 should deliver much more in the way of story after everything that preceded it, and for the most part, the tale that the game tells is an excellent one. Gears 5, especially in the opening hours, weaves more intrigue and mystery into the plot than has ever been seen in the franchise before. I found myself constantly wanting to push things forward to find out what would happen to Kait and the gang and to see how everything would end up.
After a stellar first two Acts though, the story of Gears 5 does fall off a bit. The interpersonal relationships with the rest of the characters in the latter half of the game continue to be largely great, but the drive of the plot itself does begin to wear down. Act III, specifically, feels a bit aimless at times as the entire goal becomes less about the personal motivations of the characters and instead is entirely centered around just launching a rocket. The ending of Gears 5 as a whole also wraps on another cliffhanger, which is a bit saddening even though it’s expected. It’s not a bad ending, but I just wish more would’ve been explored prior to having to inevitably wait for the sequel.
If there’s one thing that really did bother me about the narrative of Gears 5 though, it deals specifically with a late-game decision that the player must make. Without spoiling anything, the game asks you to make a vital choice in the final hours of Gears 5 that will impact the outcome of the story. This, of course, means that there are multiple endings to be had. What frustrates me about this though is that there are no other instances in Gears 5 where you are ever presented with decisions that you have to make.
Maybe it’s just a pet peeve of mine, but I absolutely hate it when games that feature no choices throughout the entirety of the experience then force you to make one that affects the story later on. It makes the decision feel hollow, especially knowing that whatever option you choose, the developers will in the end more than likely decide which ending is canon before Gears 6 inevitably arrives. Games that are solely linear for 99% of the story need to stop making players decide the outcome at the very end. Just tell me, the player, the story that you want to tell.
Outside of the story itself, Gears 5’s campaign brings a multitude of other changes. Likely the biggest of these new features is one that brings vast, open areas to explore. These two locations, found in Acts II and III, are traversed on largely via a skiff vehicle that is led by a sail. It is in these areas that you can explore a bit and find other tasks to do other than those on the main path.
Yes, Gears 5 has side quests, which isn’t something I initially would’ve expected awhile back. If you get sick of pursuing the main objectives, you can travel to other locations on the map and find some additional tasks to complete. Most of these quests are pretty straightforward, but I also found them to contain some of the most enjoyable combat situations throughout the campaign. You can also gain some new gear at times that will surely help you as you move forward. Gears 5 is best experienced if you slow down in these larger areas and actually take the time to see everything that has been filled into these levels.
For the most part, these open areas are enjoyable and, at the very least, mix up the monotony a bit. My biggest gripe with them is that they’re almost a bit too vast, and driving your skiff from point A to point B at times can be a bit too long. If you’re playing in co-op and aren’t actively driving the vehicle, this is a good time to check your phone. Still, I appreciate that The Coalition tried to mix things up here with this style of game and level design. This is now the sixth entry in the Gears of War series and to make Gears 5 nothing more than corridor shooting once again would’ve been a bit of a letdown. I appreciate that the developers tried to do something new here, especially since I think it works pretty well.
Another big change in Gears 5 is the inclusion of some borderline RPG elements. This time around, the robotic companion, Jack, plays a larger role in combat than before and comes equipped with abilities that you can use in real-time when fighting off the Swarm. Some of these include a flashbang, a cloaking device, and a mind control (hacking, as it’s called) ability. You can also upgrade these abilities with a specific item type that you’ll come across constantly throughout the game. It’s a small change in the grand scheme of things, but is also one that you’ll need to learn the ins and outs of, especially if you want to contend with enemies more on higher difficulties. I’d like to see this system further fleshed out in the series moving forward.
“For the most part, these open areas are enjoyable and, at the very least, mix up the monotony a bit.”
One other aspect of the campaign of Gears 5 that I was really impressed with this time around was just how many standout moments there are throughout. These “setpiece moments,” as I often refer to them, are really fantastic, and include some of my favorites that I’ve seen in any video game this year. Certain boss fights, shootouts, and some of the cutscenes in Gears 5 will continue to resonate with me months, if not years, from now. Compared to Gears of War 4, which I largely found to be pretty forgettable, Gears 5 is packed full of great moments that you’ll want to talk about with your buddies.
Also, I have to mention just how gorgeous Gears 5 looks, especially on an Xbox One X. I’ve owned my Xbox One X for nearly two years now, and this might be the best-looking game I’ve played on it in that time. Not only does Gears 5 look stunningly clear in 4K, but the environments truly pop and are full of color. I’m not saying you need to go buy a 4K TV and an Xbox One X solely for Gears 5, but if you already have each, you’re going to be very pleased with your investment.
Outside of the campaign, Horde is back and it continues to likely be my favorite supporting mode in the Gears 5 package. At a baseline level, Horde remains the same as it has back when in was introduced in Gears of War 2: blow away all the enemies that spawn and survive as long as possible. However, in Gears 5, there’s actually a much more strategic aspect to the mode, mainly in the way of the characters that you use.
Each character that you can utilize in Horde has their own specific abilities and playstyles. Marcus Fenix, for instance, is meant to be played more like a tank and can be built as such. As you earn more power (the currency of Horde mode) while playing, you’ll be able to upgrade some of the skills that Marcus has that will increase his base stats. Boosts to health and damage with certain types of weapons are some of the buffs you can purchase as Marcus, for instance. Each character is totally unique though and has their own ultimate abilities that can be used when off of cooldown, too.
“Horde is back and it continues to likely be my favorite supporting mode in the Gears 5 package.”
This is an interesting change that I think spices up Horde mode well for the most part, but it takes a second to learn just how this new method works specifically. Gears 5 never really explains many of these new systems to you all that well and my first few times trying out the mode left me with a ton of questions such as, “Why can’t I buy the same structures as my co-op partner?” and “How on earth do you upgrade items you’ve already bought?” Turns out, it’s once again all tied to characters. Those that are the engineer class (Del and Kat) are the only ones that can upgrade structures like turrets and barriers that you may have bought. Additionally, this class is the only one that can purchase every single item type from the Fabricator.
With a well-balanced team entirely full of players that you know, I think Horde mode is a lot of fun. With randoms who might be selecting character classes that aren’t well-suited to your team’s comp though, not so much. Picking a character to play as isn’t as simple as just selecting the one that you like the most. Horde takes a fair bit more coordination this time around, which isn’t a bad thing, but it does admittedly make it somewhat less approachable with random groups of people you may come across. Nonetheless, it’s still as fun as ever to try to make it to Wave 50 in one run.
Escape mode, the newest game type that has been included in Gears 5 for the first time in the franchise’s history, is the most hardcore mode of the bunch. Spawning with nothing but a knife and a basic pistol, Escape forces you to, well, escape from the facility that you find yourself inside of. After detonating a poisonous bomb of sorts at the start of each run, you then must get out of the complex you find yourself inside of all while fighting your way through hordes of Swarm enemies.
Escape feels like Gears 5’s take on battle royale, which I know might sound a bit crazy, but stick with me. As I said, you spawn with essentially nothing and are immediately in a hurry to grab new weapons and mow down foes you might come across. You’re also always being pushed forward by something behind you, and if you stay in it too long in that zone, you die. Obviously the biggest difference is that Escape is PvE and not PvP, but this game type still scratches many of those same itches for me that games like PUBG and Apex Legends have.
“I’ve owned by Xbox One X for nearly two years now, and this might be the best-looking game I’ve played on it in that time.”
Far and away though, Escape is the most difficult mode included here in Gears 5. Especially once you start to bump the difficulty up a bit, runs can get really hectic really quickly and can end before you know it if you’re not careful. Because of this, though, I think Escape is one of the more replayable features in all of Gears 5, especially since a full match isn’t even that long. Escape is something that I think hardcore players will really love and it’s something I’m excited to continue diving into with friends in the coming months.
As one last thing to mention, there is also a map builder mode for Escape, but I admittedly didn’t get too deep into playing with it in my time with Gears 5. The tools on display though are pretty extensive and it’s a cool bonus for those who like creation modes. It’ll also surely extend Escape’s lifespan moving forward as well.
Versus mode is honestly the avenue I have the least to say about with Gears 5. That’s not to say Verus is bad, either, because it definitely isn’t. More so than other aspects of Gears 5 though, Versus largely feels like more of the same compared to past entries. If you’ve played a Gears game before, you should be well-versed in how multiplayer matches typically function: everyone will run around with a Gnasher shotgun bouncing in and out of cover trying to blast one another to pieces. It remains a fun meta, even though it has become a bit similar. Luckily, there are other modes this time around, such as Arcade, which breath new life into multiplayer and make it a mode that you’ll likely keep coming back to in between sessions of Horde and Escape.
“Gears 5 just feels like a complete package. “
There’s so much more that I could continue to go on about with Gears 5. I’ve not even touched on how the game actually plays, but it should go without saying that Gears continues to be one of the best third-person shooter franchises around. Shooting and movement as a whole continue to feel as fantastic as ever and some of the new weapons this time around are a blast to utilize.
From top to bottom, Gears 5 just feels like a complete package. The Coalition had been hyping up Gears 5 prior to launch as the biggest game in the series’ history, and that claim holds true. There is so much to do here across all of the game’s various modes and if you want to complete it all, you’ll be busy for quite a while.
Gears 5 isn’t just another fantastic installment in one of the best shooting franchises around, it feels like a proper improvement on everything that came before it. I’ve always loved the Gears series, but it definitely needed to evolve in some way with Gears 5. Fortunately, the team at The Coalition delivered just as they needed to. This is one game that I anticipate I’ll be returning to time and time again well into the future.